Big water is all around Southwestern Montana at the moment, especially the Bitterroot. Until things settle down a bit, why not still enjoy the river in a safe and leisurely fashion with a beautiful Bitterroot scenic float? This scenic trip, though, had me a bit on edge since the Root was actually a foot above flood stage at 9000 CFS; did I mention that?
Well, after thoroughly informing my floaters what was happening out there, they decided what the hell, let’s do this! I am an expert oarsman, but not an idiot, so my faithful guide Chris and I hauled the boat up to Hannon and set out to scout the rampaging river for the next fifteen miles. What we saw out there was one of the coolest experiences I’ve witnessed: the river could have floated a battleship out there, let alone my little 13 foot NRS. We found we could go anywhere in the entire river bottom: islands, cottonwood stands, people’s back yards!
Our scenic scout and float the next day were a huge success. With life vests fully adorned and safety first in my mind, we ran 23 miles of the Bitterroot in about four or five hours. Boulders could be heard tumbling and clunking underneath the boat in the torrent, while my eyes scouted miles ahead for trouble in the form of downed timber and strainers. I don’t recommend the common leisure boater pull this kind of float, but I do trust my abilities and that of my crew to safely navigate our waters and enjoy the resource in all stages of the season.
While the Bitterroot River is up and pretty much unfishable, we took a drive over Lost Trail Pass to search out some fishy water on the upper Big Hole. Unlike many freestone rivers, when the Big Hole is up it remains quite fishable on its upper reaches. With meadows and rolling pine hills surrounding the river for the upper forty miles or so, the runoff comes peacefully down the drainage until the eventual canyons at Wise River and Divide.
Pulling up early in the morning after a dawn departure from the flooded Bitterroot, we were pretty stoked to see the river meandering along just like always. The tea colored waters had risen a foot in the last few days, but we only knew from looking at the USGS hydrograph as the change was almost imperceptible to the eye.
Buggers, streamers, and nymph rigs were the choice of the day; little dry fly activity was expected though March Browns hatched well in the afternoon, bringing up a few little risers. We found good consistent fishing from noon onward, almost entirely on nymphs. The streamer game just never played for us even though we gave it our best for the sixteen miles we floated. Some recent photos have us jonesing for a big brown, and I mean a big boy like the one our Hamilton High School principle just caught. Fish like this one will keep you coming back to the Big Hole.
The river has been looking great, even though the levels are up a bit from normal and we all know what is to come soon with the big snowpack. We ran a lower river float checking channels and different lies in the big water. Streamers did for nothing; we spent the early morning hours stripping, dredging, and mending our bugs for not. Towards early afternoon and the end of our float, we finally bobbered up and immedialtly hooked up. Well, shit. I guess we could have tried that about six hours earlier and our float could have been much more productive. We finished the last bit with the bobs and hooked or landed several more fish in the obvious lies. So until the warmth and the rain get to the river, keep a bobber close at hand.
We checked out the Bitterroot a few days ago just to see. You know, just to see for ourselves what’s happening out there. She was at 3500 at Darby, a pretty fishable level in my opinion, so even though most folks will give you the poo-poo about fishing right now we figured it could be done. While the main stem of the Bitterroot is chugging along, channels like the ones pictured are filled up and looking good.
Well, it pretty much sucked. I did catch a small brown and a squawfish and had another fish chase the streamer, but the Bitterroot was obviously off color and flowing fast. Now if you take a look today at the USGS Streamflow, three days later, things are starting to look pretty good. The river has dropped nicely down to 2900 cfs at Darby, which should clean things up and stabilize the fish. We’ll be checking soon to keep an eye on the fishing before the big water cometh. Gotta go to know.
The river is on the fluctuations of a big spring, up one day and then dropping after a few cold nights. We’ve been at it through snow and rain, wind and shine, finding pretty good fishing through it all. Adversity is definitely the name of the game; lots of rigs, lots of poking around checking all the holds. Every type of fly rig has its time to play throughout the day: streamers for a few runs, then fish a dry through the riffles and slough mouths.
Any spotted fish is catchable right now, and right about two o’clock the March Brown mayflies have been peeling off, bringing quite a few fish out to feed. Throughout the upper Bitterroot, we’ve found many sneaky little spots that have steady rising fish, but you have to search closely and fish a ton of water to find them. Once you do, bingo. We have plenty of equally sneaky hand tied patterns in Skwala and mayfly that work excellent, with fish moving hard to the fly and eating them fool hearty.
Well, while I was out on a guided float chasing Skwalas and mayflies, my guides were up to no good, as you can clearly see, chasing big Bitterroot brown trout, and definitely not using dry flies. Trout eat a little of everything, mostly aquatic insects, as they forage throughout the day in rhythm with the daily bug cycles. When the hatch at hand gets going, large numbers of fish feed throughout the river to take advantage of the increase in bug activity.
Then there’s these guys. Hatch be damned. Browns like this rarely fall for your ordinary insect imitations, their feeding patterns are impulsive, and their foraging is more like hunting and killing. These are the predators of our peaceful little rainbow/cutthroat stream: no little trout is ever really safe. That’s why we protect our beloved little dinks by targeting these bruisers with the only thing they consistently hammer: Streamers. Heavy, colorful, flashy minnow imitations with big ass googly eyes fished on a clear, sink tipped seven weight. Oh Yeah.
Streamer chucking is not for the faint of heart, and many can’t handle it. Heavy stiff rods and weighted lines wear a person out, especially if one’s cast is inefficient, so we guides use caution when introducing our anglers into this realm: short periods keep our guests from getting frustrated and beat down. Now when it’s a crew like these two river monkeys in the photo, there’s no holds barred. Ten miles of swollen off color river, a half rack of Coors, and hundreds of heavy casts went into that one brown trout. Every cast has the promise of another leviathan: it may be the first deep log jam at daybreak, it may be somewhere on mile seven, or it may not happen at all. Keep hucking.
The river’s up and showing the signs of what 170% of snowpack looks like around here: the usual lazy runs and obvious holes are cooking along with at least double last years flows, making for tricky fishing and oaring to get the job done. Two days of guiding recently put us hard at it, searching the inside turns and back eddies for soft water, looking for risers in protected channels. With the first good March Brown hatch I’ve witnessed this year on the Bitterroot, we finally found fish consistently rising in back channels and mellow inside corners on the local hatch. With Skwalas and Nemouras popping at the same time period, mid afternoon, some areas fished pretty hot on the dry, whichever we fished. When the dries died out and the rain started falling, we made her play as best as possible. Big stonefly nymphs on a deep drop proved the most reliable bobber setup. Many miles of river were just too fast to get a decent drift, but with some good casting and elbow grease at the oars, there were plenty of hungry fish to feed if you know what to look for.
Chasing the goat, as we like to refer to it. Or more accurately, a plan that has turned futile that once held so much promise. Kinda like our plan to nail a bunch of big fish on the lower Bitterroot Saturday, April 13 on streamers, until our gorgeous morning turned into a northern winter blitzkrieg around mid afternoon. With easily forty mile per hour sustained gales, we rowed due north right into the punishment for hours on this long stretch of river. The fishing pretty much sucked, between the wind and the bumped up river flows, we caught few fish, and my boat was even handed a royal skunking. Always optimistic, it was a good workout for when the river really gets big, and will make those marginal dry fly days seem outstanding compared to that crap. We hustled it back to Blacksmith Brewing in Stevensville, a beacon of light, and toasted Cutthroat IPAs to another day of chasing the goat.
Time’s a’come and gone for the early, easy water on the Bitterroot, and pretty much most of Montana for that matter. We’ve seen our fair share of bugs and had some smokin’ days on dries out there, but the big snowpack we’ve accumulated this winter is starting to roll off the mountains like we knew it eventually would. The weather is cooling off which will lock up the flows, and also produced one hell of a Baetis hatch today from Stevi to Florence, and clean this river up to start fishing stellar again.